Where do you go to hang out? Spend time with friends? Spend time alone? Maybe with God? For the past seven months, I’ve been trying to figure out Portland, hotspots, and hubs. There’s no real town center, but there’s the community center, the high school, public library; the movie theater, awkwardly standing alone in the field, like its waiting to make a new friend. Hoping a better restaurant will saunter on over its way. Just down our street, at the edge of the water, is the number two kite-boarding park in the country. When it’s a little bit cooler, I take my lunch to the point, cheer on the wave tamers. It’s a beautiful spot for a beautiful sport, though I suspect you need a little bit of “crazy” in you to do it.
Across the bridge, well, there’s the rub, isn’t it? Having to go cross the bridge; but just the other side is the ballpark; the aquarium even before one hits Harbor Bridge. A favorite spot of mine is the stretch alone Ocean - the bronze, sea-embracing statue of Jesus just beyond the now almost dismantled Memorial Coliseum....
Where do you go to hang out?
So I’m sitting at Starbucks. One of the places where I like to hang out. I spend some time every Monday -- usually between 9:30 and 10, 10:30, at the Portland Starbucks, having already spent the earliest part of Monday morning here in this sanctuary, praying through the scriptures for the upcoming week. (By the way, you’re forever more than welcome to crash my routine with your company.) I’m sitting at Starbucks, nestled into a book, grande decaf mocha in hand, when a man who had just left the counter comes back to the counter. The barista asks what she can do for the man. He says, “Nothing. It’s already ruined.” A promising start. Says he had specified three quarters tea to one quarter lemonade. The ratio was clearly off; he can taste it; the man does not want reparations, only for the barista to know how thoroughly disappointed, disgusted, he is -- hadn’t she been paying attention?? -- and that the woman had failed him in her service to the man.
No, she couldn’t make him another one. He turned his back to the counter and walked out. The young woman was visibly disheartened.
Another barista came from the back to comfort the first woman behind the counter, the first woman explained that, while she was hurt, she had come to expect as much from the man. Some people are just always unhappy, she said. The two women proceeded to swap stories about other routinely unhappy customers. The woman, for example, who always custom orders an inch of caramel at the bottom, expecting no extra charge -- never fully satisfied that the caramel at the bottom is exactly an inch. On and on it went.
I wanted it to stop; I wanted to intervene; I wanted to protect them from the routinely unhappy people. We all know routinely unhappy people. People for whom unhappy is just the way they are.
But the more I thought about it, I got confused. I remembered a person who had come in about the same time that I had, maybe twenty minutes earlier. She’d held the door open for at least a couple of us; had greeted the barista warmly before ordering her drink. By all appearances, was nothing but pleasant, the very opposite of unhappy. But when the next drink hit the counter and she tasted it, she turned in a flash into the lemonade man. “I ordered WHITE chocolate!” she demanded. “This isn’t what I ordered!” “I know,” said the barista, “that’s what he ordered” (she was pointing to me). “You picked up his drink.” “I’m so, so sorry,” she said. And she was back to her pleasant, if now slightly embarrassed, self.
I had wanted to protect the baristas from the regularly unhappy people, but the white chocolate woman was a reminder that things are seldom so simple. Yes, some people make predictable routines of unhappiness. But most of us, I suspect, are more like the white chocolate woman, our lives spent teetering somewhere on the edge of a perilous cliff: polite, if not kind; kind, if not joyful, still precipitously near an impromptu change of character, one that might happen at any moment, the next moment; ready in an instant to act as if the next grievance felt is a sin against our being. Or consider our anger at telemarketers. Outrage in a closed up bottle. An atmosphere that, sustained among others over time, replaces truth-telling with face-saving and friendship with unsteady fear.
I share all of this because, like I said at the outset, my Mondays begin with prayerful reading of the coming Sunday’s lessons. So while lemonade man and white chocolate woman played the scene out before me, the reading that guided my thoughts and filled up my prayers for them and for me was St. Paul’s message from Galatians. Here is what I had just read, and what you have just heard:
“For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”
The picture is graphic, tragic, familiar. A tragic picture replayed a million times across a day, a thousand times across a life. As far back as Galatia - to whom Paul wrote the letter. As near as the corner Starbucks.
But to start, let’s take the step back. As far back as Galatia, what was the problem? The problem was that non-Jewish Christians were feeling pressure at the hands of Jewish converts to the Christian faith to look the part of a faithful God follower. Guess what Jewish converts to the Christian faith thought faithful God followers looked like -- them! Specifically, Jewish Christians wanted non-Jewish Christians to keep the Law, most centrally through the practice of male circumcision. That’s why the whole letter runs poor Abraham in and out of the text like a thread. Circumcision was the sign begun with Abraham to represent the covenant promise between Abraham and God; the promise that began, that gave birth, to the Jewish people.
The big question then is whether the promise of God has been kept if the old signs aren’t visible in the new people around them, the people they’re learning to call friends. So they find themselves frustrated by the people around them.
You know, the teacher, or lawyer, or priest who says, “I love my job; it’s the people that get in the way.”
The challenge that happens when I let Jesus into my heart, only to learn that he’s bringing his friends.
Fear that God’s promise might escape us if the new people don’t wear the old clothes. And so, in a bizarre turn of events, the people of promise, the Christians in Galatia, turn to violence in order to remember the promised love of God:
“You’re messing it up. You’re not teaching it right. Are you sure you’re even saved? I wish you weren’t here. Get out.” Like lemonade man and white chocolate woman and sometimes me. Outrage in a closed up bottle.
This is the Church in Galatia, where the people are consuming one another with anger, jealousy, strife, enmity, factions. They can’t reach agreement on what is the distinguishing mark of a Christian, how you know a real one, because they’ve forgotten that the distinguishing mark of a Christian is the very Spirit of Christ, the love of God, and a gift.
To look for any other mark, says St. Paul, on the soul of another is to insist on the Law and to pass up the gift.
Saint Jerome follows Saint Paul in connecting life under the rule of the Law with an absence of love. Here’s what he says: “If you read the whole Old Testament and understand it according to the text an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth...what appears as justice will eat you away, not avenging anything but consuming everything.”
Of course, this is true not just in the Church (through it’s certainly true in the Church). One of the jokes of the present age is that for all of society’s depicting of Christians as hypocrites, law-makers and breakers, you will not find a harder, more litigious, setting than the society in which we live.
The question for us, whether in here or out there is “What can it mean to live otherwise?”
To live without fear of making mistakes; not because you never make them, but because forgiveness and patience and peace can be found among friends in abundance; to live without the red-hot burden of self-righteous anger, not because you’re never wronged, but because generosity, gentleness, self-control had grown richly in you; to live without the need to keep up appearances, not because you don’t care, but exactly because you do care: because love, joy, and faithfulness have become the lifeblood of your friendships; to live as if love might not ever run out not because we know ourselves to be so loving but because God in Christ Jesus has overwhelmed us with love.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. This fruit is how God in Christ Jesus has chosen to be in his dealings toward us. And His love is an invitation to share the fruit. Do not eat each other, He says; but here, take this bread. Do not despise friend or stranger, but come, drink the wine of this fruit. Partake of me. Be consumed not with anger but with the Spirit and life and love of the Son of the Living God.
That which we receive, may we in Christ’s mercy be.